Jeff Oleen's racing career began 12 years ago with an old, ramshackle go kart his father bought for him to restore. And for much of his youth, racing was just a hobby for Oleen. Spending Saturdays at the track meant a chance to bond with his father.
The Bethesda native quickly demonstrated an innate ability, winning five consecutive go kart championships between ages 12 and 16 at Sandy Hook Speedway in Street, Md.
Kart racing led to formula racing and then to stock car racing. Soon, Oleen realized racing was a viable career path. He wasn't the only one who noticed.
NASCAR selected the 20-year-old to showcase his racing skills in this weekend's NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va., an accomplishment on par with Oleen's early success.
"I see it as a foot in the door in the respects of getting exposure because a lot of people are looking at this program to produce a star minority driver," said Oleen, the only driver of Asian descent invited to the combine. "I also look at it as a stepping stone. As a driver, you can only get as far as your resources let you go."
Entering its eighth season, the Drive for Diversity Program selects 35 of the most talented women and minority drivers from around the country to compete for 10 one-year contracts with Revolution Racing and drive in the sport's lower level divisions during the 2011 season.
Revolution Chief Executive Officer Max Siegel started the program to provide underserved drivers an opportunity in racing that they might not otherwise receive.
"NASCAR has been incredibly supportive," said Siegel, a former president of Global Operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "I think in this last year the fans and industry professionals who are passionate about the sport have seen our commitment to competition."
The combine has graduated 40 drivers to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series and the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series since its inception. Siegel calls the three-day combine 360 degrees of development, allowing drivers to run laps in front of NASCAR team owners and training them in off-the-track matters like media relations.
"I guess it's just my mentality, but I think I can definitely pull it off because they're looking for a few different things like talent and marketability," Oleen said. "Hopefully I can bring to the table all that they're looking for and more."
If nothing else, Oleen's resume makes him one of the favorites to secure a contract. He was named the 2010 Rookie of the Year at Motor Mile after a slew of top 10 finishes, and in 2009 he finished fourth overall at Martinsville Speedway in his first stock car race.
But Oleen's love for racing has come with a hefty price. On top of the nearly $200,000 Oleen has received in sponsorships, his father, Dick, estimates spending $300,000 of his personal savings to fund his son's racing pursuits.
"I think the benefits far outweigh the cost in terms of money," the elder Oleen said. "We've spent so much time together as father and son and he has this passion that I think every young person ideally should have."
Oleen has dedicated nearly every moment of his life to racing. From his current pursuit of a bachelor's degree in Motorsports Management at Winston-Salem State University to using is full-time job at Home Depot to help cover some of the financial burden, Oleen is focused on his goal. And in only a few years, he could be sitting in pole position next to some of the sport's best drivers.
"That would be amazing," he said.